Does a bigger monitor make me more productive?

Two monitors = productivity++

It’s been a know fact that multiple monitors do make developers more productive. IDE on the one screen, browser with docs/webapp result on the other screen. It’s fairly easy to understand why this would make you more productive as a developer.

I’ve been using two monitors non-stop for the past four years now (before, as a consultant, not every customer allowed it) and I really would have a hard time switching back to a single monitor. On a typical day, the monitor before me has the IDE and a few terminal windows open all the day, while the one on the right has Skype/email/browser open.

Since I started working from my home office, I’ve been using the same setup: macbook on the right and a dell 22″ before me. I really liked the monitor (I actually bought another one for a different machine), but recently I’m started doing more ios development. The 22 incher has a resolution of 1680×1050, which is for XCode just not enough.

The choice

After some internet research I ended up with two candidates: the Apple Thunderbolt display and the Dell U2711. Both are 27″ displays and both have a resolution of 2560×1440. I really love everything Apple, and I love the display I have on my iMac (which is the older version of the Thunderbolt). However, in the end I decided to go against my nature and buy the Dell.

Two main reasons got me to the other side: first of all I was able to buy the Dell for about half the price it’s listed on the Dell website. Secondly, the Thunderbolt Display only has one input:  Thunderbolt. My Macbook which I use for work doesn’t have a Thunderbould output. That would mean I had to buy again another convertor, the one thing I really hate about Apple (who hasn’t lost their display port to vga convertor?). The Dell has every input imaginable: Displayport, HDMI, VGA, DVI, composite and some other ones. The Thunderbolt Display is a LED screen, with vibrant colors, while the Dell is a hi-quality H-IPS LCD screen. The Thunderbolt its colors are just awesome. But 90% of my time is spent working in an IDE.

Point is, when I decomission this screen in the future, I will have plenty of ‘markets’ to get rid of this screen, not only the Thunderbolt owners. And knowing Apple, by then Thunderbolt will again be changed by the next ‘standard’ they invent.

Bigger monitors == productivity++ ?

My current home office setup

Anyway, I’m now using the Dell U2711 for about three months now, so I thought it was time to evaluate if the bigger screen actually makes me more productive.

The first days, I had a bit of issues with the display coating (as blogged about by some). It is indeed a negative point of the Dell U2711. However,I got used to it quickly, and by now I don’t see it anymore. If I know switch to my iMac, I actually dislike seeing myself in the non-coated reflection :-).

But back to the productivity point. For starters: 2560×1440 is freaking huge. You can have multiple windows besides each other open without have to sacrifice any usability, as they would be full-screen on ‘regular’ resolution. If two screens make you more productive since you can just turn your head a bit to see the email/browser/whatever then more screen real estate would also make you more productive, right?

Sadly, I’m not ‘feeling’ the same productivity gain, I felt going from one to two monitors. I think that maybe the two physical displays allow you to also make the ‘context switch’ more easily compared to switching windows one the same monitor. It did change my window positioning habits: now, I have IDE + webapp (or rather, ipad simulator nowadays) on the big screen in front of me, while I use my smaller screen for Skype, email and Twitter.

However, altough I’m not feeling more productive, I do feel more ‘comfortable’. When working in XCode/AppCode, which tend to be screen estate greedy, the huge resolution does miracles. No dragging borders to expand a certain region, hiding stuff to get more code lines on the screen, etc. Everything can be fully expanded and it still feels zen. It’s very hard to explain this, but I do feel calmer then before. Do note that this is totally unscientifically measured.

Altough I can’t say it makes me x % more productive (I would really like to say that!). Probably it does make me a little bit more productive, but definitely not with an impact as switching to two displays. But man, the feeling you get from coding on such a display is awesome. yes, I know some people will have similar remarks as to people driving big cars 😉

I don’t regret buying the bigger screen one bit, and I would recommend it to any developer out there. Having more screen estate always a good thing. Period. But don’t expect to perform now 50% more in the same amount of time 😉

When you think about it: when I did my first coding (15-ish years ago), I did it on a 640×480 CRT monitor. The screen flickered due to not being able to get set to 60Hz (or more). Damn… times sure have changed. My iPhone now has a better screen and resolution! We sure do live in interesting times…


  1. Philip Paeps April 16, 2012

    I have exactly the opposite view: I get work done on smaller monitors. Most of my “serious work” happens in vi in 80×25 xterms and I find that the fewer of them I have, the less I get distracted and the more work I get done.

    Having said that, a large monitor is sometimes helpful in fruit-land. I am a great fan of OmniGraffle for drawing diagrams for teaching and that sort of application really likes a lot of screen real estate. However, it always takes me ages to do my diagrams because I keep getting distracted by everything else on the screen.

    I guess it’s what you’re used to. On laptops, I value portability above most other qualities and I refuse to fill my house with computer paraphernalia. So … small screens it is!

  2. Joram April 17, 2012

    @Philip: I can see what you mean. I do have some friends who have exactly the same opinion (they are unix sysadmins, so the terminals make more sense there).

    But for the work I’m doing at the moment (ios coding), the IDE (XCode) just eats screen estate. For example, even running the ipad simulator on my macbook is a pain in the ass, because in portrait mode it doesnt fit completely on the screen. And I’m not even talking about doing nibs or storyboards in XCode. And having bought the screen mainly for ios coding, i start loving it for a lot of other apps too.

    Anyway, luckily there are different opinions and tastes in the world. Would be a dull place otherwise 🙂

  3. Simon MacLean September 14, 2012

    Hi Joram,

    Came across your post whilst doing a search in Google. I am facing a similar dilemma to the one you faced previously. I am a new (just learning to code at present) developer on the Apple (iOS) platform. I was fine, learning my Objective-C and the iOS SDK and then I was introduced to storyboards…

    My problem now is that although I have the ‘ultimate’ MacBook (the new retina one) I am of the opinion that a larger screen, with mouse, may be very useful. The problem is that the large 27″ display is fracking expensive! Given your experience with Xcode, what would you advise?

  4. Joram September 18, 2012

    Hi Simon,

    I would definitely advise a 27 inch (or more) to any developer. But a retina macbook is also pretty nice already 😉
    As you could read, I chose for the Dell 27 inch, and I really really like it, having it used for 8 months now.
    So if budget is important, I’d say go for the Dell instead of the Thunderbolt.


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